Sunday, 15 August 2021

Cockney Rebel Connections Radio Show Unearths a Gem

 


When I had the honour of putting a question to music legend Steve Harley during a recent radio show, I asked him whether he considered himself to be a seventies' artist who had managed to adapt his routine in order to keep going, or whether he saw himself as one who had simply begun at that time and who is continually evolving.

It was slightly mischievous because I knew the answer that he would give me, and he didn't disappoint. Even if it were true, no artist still wanting to make a living would announce himself as belonging to a bygone era. But in Harley's case the argument is incontestable. Some of his best material was written and recorded long after that glorious decade had hung up its sequinned loon pants (Ballerina, Irresistible, Heartbeat Like Thunder, Star for a Week, When I'm With You, The Lighthouse, A Friend for Life and Ordinary People to name just a few), and he continues to play to packed audiences comprising an unyieldingly faithful following at a rate which would be impressive for a man much younger than his 70 years. He is, in every sense, a developing artist. His voice today is, in his own words, "more emotional, more true to itself, more honest". And anyone who has seen the man perform live, as I have had the privilege of doing so many times, will testify that there is an innate timelessness about the entire experience.

But of course, his seventies' material spoke to me in a wholly different way – not because it was necessarily better, but because I was of "that" age when he recorded it. So whilst A Friend for Life, just to give one example, may stand favourable comparison with any of his earlier numbers, it is merely a brilliant song. It was not written about me, as Mr. Soft, Mr. Raffles and Judy Teen were written solely about me and the things I was going through during my formative years. In other words those special memories that I hold to my heart are down not to what he was doing in the 1970s, but to what I was doing.

Nocturnal defiance

Which is why I found episode 98 of the Cockney Rebel Connections radio show, featuring priceless if understandably unpolished audio footage (yes, "footage" is the correct noun - I checked!) of a 1976 interview with Peter Powell at Radio Luxembourg, uniquely engaging.

Stewart Griffin
For those of a certain age, Radio Luxembourg evokes fond memories of surreptitiously listening to a hand-held transistor under the bed covers in the wee small hours, when we were supposed to have been deep in slumber long before that time in preparation for the next day at school. My friend and fellow Rebel fan Stewart Griffin, whose unfailingly excellent show CRC is, is of a certain age. Which is why his recollections of this weekly act of nocturnal defiance tally precisely with my own.

The "footage" came by courtesy of a 45-year-old second-hand cassette recording, hence the slightly erratic sound quality. In fact the process of conveying audio from radio to cassette tape in the 1970s was itself the stuff of legend, typically involving both machines being located in close proximity to one another to ensure the best possible transmission of sound, along with the enforced silence of everybody else in the room for the entire duration of the broadcast. Background coughs were an irritation, if in retrospect an integral and organic feature of the whole operation. When a tape malfunctioned and became entangled in the mechanism of the cassette, the remedial process involved a pencil (don't ask!) and a whole lot of patience. In the imperfect, but eminently listenable product which the DJ has preserved against all odds for our enjoyment there is a gorgeous authenticity.

But the interview is itself vintage Harley, shocking self-confidence ("It's my voice, it's my song – take it or leave it!") and commendable humility somehow rolled into one as only a rising young superstar in the seventies, supremely comfortable in his own creative skin, could be expected to pull off. With his (then) latest single and LP, both entitled Love's a Prima Donna, providing the hook for the discussion, the singer-songwriter gives us a fascinating insight into the things that informed his emergence as one of the great lyrical and musical innovators of the day.

A calculated risk

Steve Harley

1976 was, of course, the year that Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel recorded Here Comes the Sun, the old George Harrison classic. According to Harley it was "a bit of a calculated risk" but as the long, hot summer bedded in it could not have been better timed. It was a clever, original interpretation of an already long-established masterpiece - always a risky venture but so very gratifying when it comes off. It came to define the year, and he still uses it as an opener at his gigs all these years on.

Perhaps the most instructive observation from an interview which was beguiling from start to finish was that, even back in those far off days, Harley considered his strength to lie in the special relationship which he felt he had with his audiences. He didn't care much for music critics ("Everything that's criticised, it's too late - the artist has already done his job"). Then, as now, his passion was to perform for those who appreciated him. Those who didn't were characters in another story, actors in another play - why was that any concern of his?

Any residual awkwardness which may have afflicted me after putting my question during the recent phone-in was truly swept away when the next caller asked him whether he regretted not having received the acclaim she felt he deserved. It was intended as a compliment, but inevitably came across in such a way that suggested he had somehow missed the boat. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has filled the Royal Albert Hall, packs most of the many venues that he plays ("You only sell out if the audience trusts you") and enjoys a following of whose fierce loyalty and dedication any artist would be proud. That he is on first name terms with so many of his fans should be acknowledged as a tribute to the love he has for them, not mistaken to be indicative that they are few in number. No other performer, to my knowledge, is as intimately engaged with his fan base as is Steve Harley.

No contradiction

Harley is, always has been and remains an evolving artist. There is no contradiction between recognising, and enjoying, that fact and reminiscing about the music and the memories that he gave us in the wake of glam back in the heady days of the mid-seventies. His music today sets new standards, he's not a man who believes in going backwards.

Whilst any comparison in terms of achievement would be absurd, I do find inspiration as a writer in this perennial artist's attitude to his work, to the way in which he has clearly identified his objectives and to his desire to reach his intended audience. As he tells Peter Powell, "I like to think I'm respected where it matters most - as long as you know me, what else matters?"

"There's an element of integrity to what I do," he continues. "I'm not going to do disco, just because it is in fashion. I don't follow trends, I'd rather create trends."

There is no greater achievement than to be true to oneself, to convey the sound of one's own soul. What a fine example Steve Harley has set, from the mid-'70s when we first came to know him right through to the present day.

To hear the 1976 Radio Luxembourg interview with Steve Harley in full, please click here.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Introducing My New Author Page

 


Anyone looking for a change of scenery might wish to take a look at my new Author Page, where all of my current works are featured side by side for ease of reference. It features a handy contact form for enquiries and will run a regular blog featuring longer articles than would be the norm at this site. Please feel free to take a look by clicking here.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

1000 Memories of 1976 - A Compendium of Nostalgia

 


My latest book (upgraded from a booklet, as it had originally been intended to be) is selling well, and has already received several favourable reviews on its product page at Amazon.

1000 Memories of 1976 is just as the name suggests, except that there are actually many more than a thousand. Each and every memory was solicited through Facebook groups whose admins kindly lent me their platforms, and was crafted together into a veritable mosaic of nostalgia which I hope will serve as a valuable reference point for present and future historians of the era.

As 1976 was Bicentennial year across the pond, most of my transatlantic contributors were understandably focussed on that event. For convenience I have included a dedicated chapter through which to capture the experience through a specifically American lens. This includes a number of fascinating pics and illustrations which were sent in along with the written material.

What had started out as an almost half-serious idea turned into a labour of epic proportions, but I'm still glad I did it. 1000 Memories of 1976 is available from Amazon in paperback (£8.99) or ebook (£2.99). As always a sample is available to view before deciding whether to commit.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Memories of 1976?

Over the last couple of months I've been labouring over a new literary project with the working title Memories of 1976.

As it implies on the tin, the idea has been to solicit memories via Facebook nostalgia groups from people of a certain age who have some kind of affinity to 1976 - the year of that never-ending summer when the old met the new in music and in popular culture, while an unstable world seemed to totter on the brink of economic meltdown tinged with a worrying if still remote prospect of nuclear conflagration.

If the intention was to use content from others as an easy means of filling pages for my own work then things haven't quite gone to plan. Expecting maybe two to three dozen responses, instead I received nearly 1600, which now need to be ploughed through and placed into some kind of logical context which leaves nothing out and yet somehow retains its freshness through to the final page. Honour obliges me to include every sensible contribution, as I promised all those who engaged with the project that I would. And so what began as an idea for an easy win for a new booklet has morphed into something which threatens to resemble a sequel to War And Peace.

No matter, it is what it is. I will announce the new masterpiece to an eagerly awaiting world just as soon as it is available. To be truthful I'm rather looking forward to it as I'm confident it will be a work worthy of a place in the burgeoning archives of retro, as well as a useful reminder that things don't always go to plan.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

The Man Who Fell to Earth



Think of this iconic 1976 sci-fi movie and the mind becomes inexorably fixed upon a vision of the gaunt, pallid figure with wavy red locks that was David Bowie playing Thomas Jerome Newton, the visitor from another planet come to Earth to find water with which to sate the desperate thirsts of his drought-stricken people.

And yet Nicolas Roeg's surreal cult movie, based on Walter Tevis' 1963 novel of the same name, saw Bowie in the first lead acting role of his already colourful career. Sure he had studied mime under the expert tutelage of Lindsey Kemp, an art which he had incorporated with dazzling effect into his Ziggy Stardust stage routine, and had secured a blink-and-you'll-miss-it bit-part role in the late sixties comedy romp The Virgin Soldiers, but this was a big leap even for a man of Bowie's many talents.

Nevertheless, when the accolades were handed out following the movie's initially modest success it was Bowie who scooped the Saturn Award for Best Actor.

LOVE INTEREST

Newton, an alien in more or less human form, arrives on his mission equipped with an advanced knowledge of technology, which he was able to put to good effect on Earth by patenting inventions and making himself wealthy in the process. But he needs his wealth to enable him to build a space vehicle with which to transport water back to his people.

Whilst here amongst our people, however, he not unreasonably finds himself to drawn to earthly pursuits, not least a love interest called Mary-Lou, played by Candy Clark. He also develops rather too keen an enthusiasm for alcohol, upon which he eventually becomes dependent.

Nevertheless he does actually manage to construct his space craft, only to be detained shortly before his planned departure after being betrayed by one he thought he could trust. And so the story descends into anti-climax, with the sad visitor increasingly resigned to the fact that he will never return, and settling in with some difficulty to life on Earth, minus his girl and much of his faculties.

ENDURING SUCCESS

Bowie went on to enjoy a successful acting career in film and on stage alongside his immense musical achievements. In spite of the unspectacular reception that The Man Who Fell To Earth received in 1976, it achieved enduring success as a cult movie through later years and is today one of Roeg’s most celebrated works.